Legacy Media Sites
“In doing this we weren’t trying to cut staff. We were trying to get people to read and participate and be part of the community.”
The Morris Publishing Group has launched one of the most radical old-media experiments in citizen journalism: It ended its Savannah paper’s weekly zoned coverage of nearby coastal South Carolina and launched in its place a community web site and a free home-delivered publication, called Bluffton Today, in the one rapidly growing part of the zone.
The Savannah Morning News, about a 40-minute drive from the town of Bluffton, was losing market share to closer McClatchy daily papers. Morris saw little value in trying to compete for penetration in the built-out towns of Beaufort and Hilton Head, but saw possibilities in Bluffton, a former fishing village that was becoming the hot spot for new golf communities rising on the coast. Half the population was new to the community in the previous five years. Morris gambled it could launch a free daily delivery paper for the area and a companion web site, BlufftonToday.com, and make these indispensable venues through which residents would get to know each other and build a sense of place.
The site, which launched in spring 2005, blends local blogs with original citizen-generated content. Some 5,000 people in the town of 16,000 became registered users in the first year, an extremely high ratio by the standards of citizen sites. By the end of 2006, registered users had increased to more than 7,300; 1,618 had posted comments, 1,289 had posted blog entries. And 960 users had posted 26,700 photos in the photo galleries.
“The vision is that the web site is this huge participative environment, and the home-delivered newspaper draws heavily on the site,” said Steve Yelvington, the site’s shepherd at Morris Digital Works. “In doing this we weren’t trying to cut staff. We were trying to get people to read and participate and be part of the community. It’s not about getting print out the door at a lower cost, but about building strong community where people have bonds of trust and are interested in and care about local affairs - because that’s what we cover in the paper.”
The first citizen journalism sites published by news organizations go back only three years but they are multiplying quickly. First to launch, in 2004, was Northwest Voice in Bakersfield, California. Its founder, Mary Lou Fulton, explained that Bakersfield’s family-owned newspaper, The Californian, recognized it could not cover news at the neighborhood level in the rapidly growing area of about 300,000 people and considered that to be a barrier between the paper and readers. An initial investment of $50,000 included the start-up of both a web site filled with community-generated neighborhood news and announcements, and a free weekly edition that draws content from the site and is delivered to every home in the area. A second site, Southwest Voice (swvoice.com) covers another part of the paper’s circulation region.
The citizen sites combine “organic community content” - whatever citizens choose to write about or announce - with regular contributions from volunteer columnists and articles and discussion questions generated by site editors. Fulton said editors visited 25 community leaders prior to the launch to encourage them to contribute material. “Then it was just a matter of our editor bugging the heck out of people, reminding them we’re around and we’re looking for articles and pictures,” she said.
“What we’ve done in newspapers is train people in communities that events that matter to them,” such as wedding anniversaries other than silver and gold, “don’t matter to the newspaper,” she said. “Our policy is to say ‘yes’ to everything, provided that it’s local and relevant to the community. You have to do that for a while before people believe you.”
The site reached break-even in about a year, in part by providing an affordable ad buy to small businesses that cannot afford to advertise in the daily.
In Nashville, a TV station - ABC affiliate WKRN - has launched a citizen blog aggregate, NashvilleisTalking.com, hosted by an in-house blogger who highlights and comments on local postings. “They’re trying to engage a different type of audience who doesn’t watch local news,” said site operator Brittney Gilbert. “It’s sarcastic, light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek. My opinions and biases are out in the open and there’s no intention of being objective.” The site wants more video contributions, but few have emerged from citizens who were trained in video newsgathering. Gilbert said, “We think that’s because bloggers don’t have the equipment. ... We’re thinking of lending cameras for a week to trained bloggers.”